It is admittedly difficult, although not altogether impossible, to make a movie about a historical event where everyone already knows the ending. Still, “All the President’s Men” and “Apollo 13” both generate substantial suspense even though almost everyone who saw either film had a pretty good idea of the outcome.
Telling that kind of story when things end up less happily is even trickier, but still doable: The second half of Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” for example, follows Dr. Guevara to a rather dismal end in Bolivia, but the mechanics of his failure remain compelling.
And then there’s “Valkyrie,” which Mark Twain might have subtitled “The Not-So-Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” Director Bryan Singer is a master of forward motion in his storytelling — I still think “X2” is one of the best superhero films ever made — but he never distracts us enough from the knowledge that doom is around the corner for our heroes, a cadre of Nazis who sought to kill Hitler and negotiate with the Allied forces in the waning days of World War II.
After losing an eye, a hand and several fingers in North Africa, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) is recruited to join the high-level resistance by General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy). Von Stauffenberg devises a plan in which Operation Valkyrie — which was designed to keep the peace in the event that Hitler (David Bamber) should die — gets rewritten to allow Olbricht and his comrades to take power and to authorize the arrest of the entire SS, so that the Gestapo won’t be a factor in the regime change.
Getting Hitler to sign these new orders unread proves rather easy, but killing the Führer presents more of a challenge. At a meeting at Hitler’s Wolf’s Den bunker, however, von Stauffenberg is able to plant an explosive device, which successfully explodes.
And that’s sort of where the plan falls apart — von Stauffenberg skedaddles without confirming that Hitler is actually dead; General Erich Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) cuts off all communications as per the plan’s dictates, which makes it impossible for Olbricht to check in, and thus the implementation of Valkyrie is delayed for hours, and so on and so on. In other words, for all the zippy editing (by longtime Singer collaborator John Ottman, who also composed the effective score), viewers will spend most of “Valkyrie” waiting for the other jackboot to drop.
Most disappointingly, there’s a gaping hole at the center of “Valkyrie,” and his name is Tom Cruise. He’s the only actor in the film not doing either a British or a German accent — more on that in a moment — and he spends every moment on screen glowering and purring angrily. The actor appears lost without being able to launch his usual charm offensive, and whatever dark sides that Oliver Stone was once able to plumb from this performer seems nonexistent. If only his work here had an ounce of the nasty pleasures of Cruise’s “Tropic Thunder” cameo.
The accent thing really becomes distracting, incidentally. Putting Cruise-as-Cruise aside for one moment, it’s generally accepted in American movies about speakers of a foreign language that a British accent is the default. But when you’ve got U.K. actors like Nighy, Izzard, Tom Wilkinson (marvelously wormy), Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp and Tom Hollander using their natural voices opposite Hitler, all the other Nazis and all the other German characters (including “Black Book” star Carice van Houten, ill-used as Mrs. von Stauffenberg) speaking with German accents, it becomes a mess of dialects.
Ultimately, it’s not the actors that bring down “Valkyrie,” it’s the script by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander, which never presents a compelling case as to why we should care about a bunch of Nazi officers who Failed to Not Save Hitler’s Brain. The writers have meticulously laid out what happened during those few hours when Hitler was thought to have been assassinated, but it boils down to lots of phone calls and maps being shaded.
Had things gone differently, could the resisters have seized power away from Hitler? Did anything of substance come out of the brief shining moment of the failed coup? “Valkyrie” never tells us, and it never builds any suspense around the idea that von Stauffenberg and company were on the cusp of making something actually happen. As such, what might have been “a gay romp through the Berchtesgaden” (as “The Producers” would have it) winds up feeling more like a thousand-year reich.